This column long has been of the opinion Joe Paterno had the right to end his career as football coach at Penn State how and when he wanted. Certainly, Paterno was owed that much by the university. Whatever Penn State has done for Paterno, he has done 10 times that for Penn State.
This was a concept on which most people, even many of his detractors, agreed. But as the years go by -- Paterno is 81 -- this one-time simple equation becomes complex. Paterno, in the final year of his latest contract, is on the verge of overstaying his welcome. By all accounts, the university wants him to come to some decision about when he will retire. It's a fair request, considering his age, but one, as near as can be determined, Paterno wants no part of doing.
For all we know, Paterno might be holding out for another five-year contract.
This reluctance by Paterno to put some type of succession plan in place has changed the parameters of the discussion. Penn State has a right to plan for the future. If Paterno refuses to engage in good-faith discussions about that future, he is wearing away some of the loyalty he so richly has earned.
There's another issue in this discussion: Competence. And we're not talking about Paterno's won-loss record. We're talking about his abdication of the day-to-day operations of the football program.
Paterno wants to work from home. Who doesn't? For some people, newspaper columnists, for example, that's a plan that can work. For others -- people in charge of a multimillion dollar business like the Penn State football program and people who are expected lead a coaching staff and a team -- it is not a good plan.
Paterno says he gets more work done at home. Really?
How is he overseeing the program from home? How is he exerting leadership from home? How is he in the necessary day-to-day contact with his players from home?
Truth be known, head football coaches, at least ones who are not figureheads, cannot successfully work from home.
There's no definitive way to account for the recent surge of arrests and suspensions of Penn State players. But one of the reasons might be that without a strong hands-on authority figure at the top of the program, players believe they can get away with unacceptable behavior.
Recruiting is another area of concern. Sure, he's an icon and a coach for the ages. But do young players feel good about playing for a man in his 80s? Do they want to matriculate at a school where the head coach is almost absent from the grind of recruiting? As near as can be determined, Paterno made one recruiting visit this year.
No one at Penn State, not even the most maverick board of trustees member, wants to push Paterno out the door tomorrow. He will coach in 2008 and, if he wants, '09. But there is a line being drawn after that point, and understandably so.
Succession is becoming common in coaching, and that's particularly so in the Big Ten. Purdue coach Joe Tiller will retire after this season. His successor will be Danny Hope, a former assistant to Tiller, who had been head coach at Eastern Kentucky. He rejoined the Purdue staff this year to make the transition smoother.
Purdue has experience with orderly coaching succession. In 2004, Matt Painter resigned as head basketball coach at Southern Illinois to join the staff of Gene Keady and the next year became his successor. In the summer of 2005, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez announced the upcoming season would be his last. Defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, who had just joined the Wisconsin staff a year earlier, was designated as his successor.
In the NFL, Jim Mora Jr. will succeed Mike Holmgren as coach of the Seattle Seahawks after this season.
If men in their 60s are ready to step aside and help in the process of naming a successor, so should Paterno. That's all the more so because he has a worthy and deserving successor in Tom Bradley.
Paterno has not met with the media since December. In his last public declarations on his job status, he said he wanted to coach for three, four or five years or as long as "I feel like I'm making a contribution."
Not good enough. Head coaches are expected to do more than make contributions. They're supposed to be vital driving force with their hand on every aspect of the program.
Paterno either cannot or will not be that person. He needs to come to his senses and understand the concerns of others for him and for the football program.
He needs to decide in the immediate future how long he wants to coach. If it's a reasonable request, it should be granted. If it's more than two years, it should not.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .